Effing Awesome: A Roadside Odyssey Through Middle America

I would just like to start by thanking the great people of Illinois—specifically the town of Effingham. Without your help and kindness, I may have been stuck in your cold, gray state for much longer than I would have liked.

This all began back in November when I thought to myself, “Fuck it, quarantine has been boring, let’s spice things up with a new car and an empty bank account.” Proceeded to spend the rest of my money on a bed, stove, and whatever else is required to live in a van. And voila, one month later John and I were en route to Colorado.

Day 1. Smooth sailing. Wow, 17 hours of driving. Look at us. A couple of road warriors, taking on America. Nothing can stop us.

Day 2. Engine light on. Pull off in a small Illinois town. Lose engine power. Limp van to mechanic. Leave the car with him. Buy a burrito. Walk back to mechanic. Cry. No, seriously, I was basically crying.

$6,000 quote, blown transmission. I’m not a huge car guy, but I’m pretty sure a blown transmission is about the worst news an owner can hear. I am at an all-time low. Out of money in Effingham, Illinois, with MY HOUSE unable to move.

I call this guy named “Rocky.” He’s a mechanic down the street. He tells me the same thing mechanic number one did, but he says he can do it for less. Rocky, you dog. He gives me a quote for half the price. But here’s the deal: Rocky is good, but not that good. We need parts, and it’s a Thursday at 4:30 p.m. Stores are closing and the parts won’t arrive until Monday.

And there we were. Stuck in a small Midwest town. John, you are my rock by the way. It takes some time, but I calm down and come to the realization that this short stop has become a week-long stay in Illinois.

First things first: Find a job? Yeah... find a job. So that’s what we did. Started at Subway, then Dollar General, the furniture store across the tracks, and finally Silver Dollar Lanes.

And remember, we have no car. Also remember, it’s January in the Midwest. A lot of rejection later, the kind lady at the bowling lanes tells us to come back the following day when the owners are in. So we leave, essentially on cloud nine, an “interview” lined up and some new friends.

We walk back to the van in Rocky’s lot and make some hot dogs and pasta, shivering in a heatless aluminum box.

The nights were cold, the walks were long, the days were boring, and morale was low.

But I began this story the way I did for a reason; the people of that town were seriously amazing. Whether it was the carwash owner who was bummed he didn’t have any work for us, or the hotel manager who offered us some fresh eggs, the people of Effingham made our time there so much better.

Rocky ended up letting us sleep in the van—on the nights he didn’t have it lifted up. And the bowling alley let us bowl for free (no jobs though). We ended up at the bowling alley most nights, sitting by the wall outlet, and meeting some really great people.

The days were full of walking, whether to see the other side of town (10 miles away), or to look for work at another business. And the cold nights parked by the train tracks were sleepless, wondering how to pronounce the name of the state we were in.

Went to church on Sunday and the pastor said to stay as long as we liked. We most definitely took him up on that.

I know there’s a lot I’m leaving out, but Monday eventually rolls around and we get a call from Rocky. “It’s all done boys, you can finally put this town in your mirrors tomorrow,” he said. Or something like that, just imagine one of those classic Rocky sayings.

We got the news in the abandoned mall we liked to spend our time in. And decided to celebrate with a night out. Niemurg’s, a steakhouse recommended by our new friend from the bowling alley, was the destination. It’s about a three mile walk from the van, and that’s even using our shortcut across the train tracks, so we make a day of it.

I felt as though I steadily got colder throughout the stay, warming up less and less every time we went inside. We decided to stroll over to Niemurg’s at about 3 p.m. and stay as long as possible. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s not cool, you’re just taking up tables and money from the staff.” Do not fret, we asked the waitress beforehand and what do you know, in typical Effingham fashion she said, “Stay as long as you’d like!” Seven hours later we walk “home,” across the tracks, by the junkyard, past the paint factory and to Rocky’s dirt parking lot.

And that was it. Like it never happened. Transmission fixed with Colorado calling our name. I was handed my receipt and Rocky didn’t even come out to say goodbye. But I wasn’t letting him off that easy; I of course walked back through the garage and thanked the man that saved our trip. I would have liked a hug, but I think our friendship was just too young.

I wholeheartedly recommend stopping in Effingham if you’re ever passing through. Although I probably would never choose to live there, it’s the best place in America to break down.